At 5am on the morning of our interview, Fearne Cotton awoke to find her seven-year-old son, Rex, standing by the bed with a pressing announcement to make. ‘He’d written a song in his sleep – and did I want to hear it?’ Groaning, the TV presenter, radio DJ, author and mental-health campaigner is unable to suppress a smile. ‘I just said, “Whoa, mini Chris Martin – now is not the time.”’
Juggling her son’s wild bouts of creativity with both his homeschooling and that of his four-year-old sister, Honey, hasn’t been easy. Then there’s the cooking, the recording of her chart-topping podcast, Happy Place, and the immense amount of work needed to turn Fearne’s Happy Place Festival – which was due to take place in London this August and Cheshire in September – into a ‘fully immersive virtual experience’. So although her husband Jesse Wood – the 43-year-old musician son of Rolling Stone Ronnie – ‘has been doing as much as me and is always happy to get stuck in,’ she assures me, ‘the whole thing has been full on.’
Speaking from a bedroom-turned-office in her London home, Fearne doesn’t look frazzled. Bright-eyed and open-faced, the 38-year-old seems as perky and put-together as always. Then again, I’ve misread Fearne before; we all have.
She’s no longer the wholesome 15-year-old from GMTV’s Disney Club nor the chirpy pixie from Top of the Pops. She’s not the relentlessly positive host of every Red Nose Day and Comic Relief telethon I’ve ever watched, Keith Lemon’s madcap team captain from Celebrity Juice, nor (until 2015) Radio 1’s too-cool-for-school DJ. And she’s certainly not the bubbly party girl I’ve watched apparently revelling in her own beauty, style and confidence from across the room at many an event and award ceremony over the years. Because, for much of that time, as it turned out, Fearne was battling depression and anxiety, which manifested itself in a 10-year battle with bulimia, paralysing panic attacks, and what she now believes was ‘probably a nervous breakdown’ in her late 20s. All of which led to a complete life change, and the setting up of a mental wellness empire ‘that puts fire in my belly every single day’.
Had mental health issues not been destigmatised pre-Covid-19, they most certainly have been over the past three months, when many of us have watched even our most robust family members and friends crumble. ‘Even if you’re lucky enough not to be directly affected by it,’ says Fearne, ‘we’ve all been impacted. Because when we’re not trying to mitigate this bombardment of bad news and conflicting information, we’re trying to digest the seismic shift the planet is going through. Our brains just aren’t equipped to deal with either.’
In keeping with the new, searingly honest approach that has spawned a series of bestselling self-help books, Fearne posted a selfie in early lockdown, leaning against her bathroom sink. That night, she explained, she’d experienced her ‘first panic attack in months’. The peaks and troughs of adrenaline that have taken so many of us by surprise have often left her, she says, ‘in a slump by 4pm, wanting to eat the whole fridge and then have a huge nap – if not go to bed for the night’.
Yet Fearne feels profoundly lucky. ‘Because I’ve able to carry on working while so many of my friends can’t do a thing. My husband [guitarist with the band Reef] might potentially not tour for another year and a half, so he’s certainly feeling anxious and fearful about that.’ And despite ‘a couple’ of lockdown tiffs, she and her husband of six years – who has two children from his first marriage, Arthur, 18, and Lola, 14 – ‘have got on so well, and actually really been able to enjoy our relationship and the slower pace of life’.
Planning the new, online Happy Place Festival – described by friend Russell Brand as the ‘Woodstock of Wellness’ after its first outing IRL last year – has also clearly boosted Fearne’s morale, and she becomes childishly excited as she explains how it will work. ‘You’ll log on to the home page and there will be a map, like at Glastonbury, indicating where to find the yoga area or the night-time music section with the cocktail masterclasses you’ll be able to take.’ Many of the experts who have been most helpful to Fearne over the years – such as alternative therapist Rebecca Dennis, ‘who taught me this breathing technique that has helped me release a lot of trauma’ – will be giving workshops. ‘And it’s all for free, so there’s no pressure to commit.’
Creating ‘a community where there is no shame in talking about how you’re feeling’ is all she has wanted to do since she decided to confront her issues and try to get well. Because for Fearne – the daughter of a signwriter and an alternative therapist who spent a ‘normal, working-class, suburban childhood’ in Eastcote, Middlesex, going to the local state school, ‘with ballet and drama club at the weekend’ – that shame was one of the reasons she suffered in silence for so long.
‘I always see my mental problems starting with the depression, but of course that’s not true, because I was bulimic for 10 years before that,’ she says, slowly. ‘And there must have been a moment where I thought, “This seems like a good idea,” and tried it for the first time, but I don’t think the trigger can have been that day.’ Can she pinpoint what or when that trigger was now? ‘I think being on the telly from the age of 15 onwards. After all, I was just a porous teenager sponging it all in.’ Then there was something Fearne hasn’t really talked about: ‘My mum has struggled with her mental health her whole life, but we’ve only recently started talking about that more together. And I only found out when my maternal grandmother passed away that she had had many nervous breakdowns as a child.’
With so much conflicting information out there on whether or not depression is hereditary, Fearne is more inclined to see her own problems as stemming ‘from lots of different things’. Was it the sense of being scrutinised at such a tender point in her life? The certainty that she was being judged? Fearne nods. ‘When I was doing Top of the Pops in the 1990s there was a plethora of gorgeous young pop stars around, from Samantha Mumba to Steps, and they all looked like these confident, luminous beings to me, with flat stomachs and stylists and make-up artists.’ She does realise that’s how she appeared to us? ‘Well, you should check out some of the outfits I wore,’ she protests with a low chuckle. ‘But I never felt I was exuding that kind of confidence or ability. Even later, I always felt a step behind everyone else.’
We take a moment to marvel at how few men seem to suffer from the ‘imposter syndrome’ Fearne is describing. ‘For years I would stand next to someone like the glorious Terry Wogan, thinking, “I don’t belong here, but everyone else does.”’ Still now, she admits to feeling that way at events. ‘I’m always thinking, “Everyone seems so comfortable here, whereas I just feel like an insecure mess.”’
Although her own self-judgment was invariably the harshest, Fearne’s sense of inadequacy was compounded by external criticism. ‘I’ve been attacked loads, verbally, over the years. And I definitely don’t want to be in the sort of arena where I can be attacked any more. It’s not that I’m saying I’m a victim: but ultimately I made the decision that I didn’t want that in my life. So, looking back, I think the bulimia was a coping mechanism – something just for me. But then I decided, “This is not working,” and got myself out of it, thank God.’
Despite the bulimia, Fearne describes her old self as ‘very sunny and highly optimistic. I was definitely naive. I saw only the good in things and people and situations and I didn’t want to look at anything else.’ But then the depression took hold, ‘and I went through a very low patch in my late 20s and early 30s when honestly, I just completely fell apart. Maybe it was a breakdown, because I literally felt like my life had ended, like everything had gone wrong, and I just wanted to be out of my own skin. It wasn’t just an emotional discomfort, but a physical one: all day, every day.’
I’m struck by how sharp the contrast is between the person she was before – and after. Was there really was no specific trigger? Fearne pauses. ‘The thing is that until I’m absolutely at peace with everything that has happened to me and every feeling I have felt – with every inch of shame and self-loathing – until I’ve dealt with that, I don’t think I can talk about it. And I hope eventually that I can talk about everything, because we know that talking honestly is what’s going to move mountains.’
It was thanks to the one work friend Fearne used to confide in that she eventually sought help. ‘One day after work she drove me to the doctor’s in the pouring rain, and I just sat there crying and crying until the doctor said: “You’re depressed”.’ Fearne still remembers her surprise at the use of a word she felt no connection to. ‘I thought: “What? I don’t think it’s that.”’ Because she felt she didn’t have the right to be depressed? ‘Absolutely. There was this awful layer of guilt. After all, I had a home, a healthy body and a great job.’
She did have all of those things, and a lot more besides. But her industry has always been rife with disorders, depression – and worse. And the mental health conversation has exposed it for being particularly noxious to women, who face many more pressures than men. ‘Our industry is still so disgustingly skewed towards what women look like, for one thing,’ Fearne agrees, her anger mounting as she talks. ‘It’s all about what their bodies look like and what the f—ing hell they’re wearing. The whole thing is ridiculous. And of course, as a woman or man, it’s lovely to put on something nice or in our case a bit of make-up, but please can that not be the only thing we’re looking at? For years I bought into that, though: I even had to dress and make myself up in a different way – put on my “power” outfit – just to feel like I was good at my job.’
As a friend of the late Caroline Flack’s, does she believe the Love Island presenter may have been struggling with that same suffocating sense of judgment? ‘It’s so hard to know. We weren’t great friends, but I’d known her for years and always seen her as a very bubbly, smart woman – with the most infectious laugh you’ve ever heard. I cried so much when I heard, and thought about her obsessively afterwards. But unfortunately we don’t know what’s going on behind closed doors with anyone.’ She pauses; takes a breath. ‘Nothing good can come out of Caroline’s death, but if one thing can change because of it, I hope it’s that people can be more compassionate and understanding – and judge less. We live in such a fast-moving world that’s often so unforgiving, and so unkind.’
Fearne needs to get back to the homeschooling and planning the online festival we’ll all be in such desperate need of, come August. But before she does, I’d like to know whether – with everything she has overcome and learnt over the years – the prospect of turning 40 is perhaps more exciting than terrifying? ‘Well the nervousness has definitely been accelerated by Normal People,’ she laughs, referring to the hit BBC drama. ‘I thought, “I’m never going to have that first love again, and that angst. F—k: 40!” But then I remember that all the women I look up to most are over 40: Meryl Streep, Tilda Swinton. I look at them and think: “I want to hold my space like that.” So really I’m excited – about how many layers I can peel off; about how comfy I can get being me.’
For more information on the Happy Place Festival, visit happyplacefestival.com